The Palais Garnier sat fat and contented after its opening night. The final trickle of theatergoers making their way from the building had stopped, and women with scarves tied around their heads pushed brooms and mops across the front steps. The light from the theater, which had poured golden and fizzy like champagne at the beginning of the night, was slowly being extinguished, one window at a time.
On a cold, iron bench, Benedict stared up at the single room at the very top of the building. It was still lit—a pale, watery light that spread mere feet across the domed roof beyond its windows. She wouldn’t be there. He doubted she could even climb the stairs after tonight’s performance, with her hip in that condition.
She’d danced perfectly tonight. No one would have noticed the injury—even he had sensed rather than seen it. He didn’t know how she was dancing on it. The pain must be unimaginable.
Perfect. A strangely unpleasant word.
He shivered and pulled his coat closer.
After the performance, he and Victor and Camille had gone to a late supper, and then to a bar. After the three had drunk several bottles of champagne (and two rounds of absinthe at Victor’s insistence) the couple had gone on to a second bar, while Benedict had announced his intention to go to sleep.
But instead of hailing a cab and returning to the Durands’, he found himself on a bench outside the Palais Garnier, long after Amelie must have departed, staring at a room high above him simply because he’d once seen her there.
Amelie. For twelve years the name had meant the smell of grass in the sunshine; the sound of laughter; the feel of a hand pulling him onto a dance floor. For twelve years he’d held her in his memory, while good thing after good thing had happened in his life. He’d studied in Austria; he’d helped improve medical education in the United States; he’d seen his brother married. His health had never left him again. His beloved institute had been approved and funded. He’d saved lives and he’d laughed with his family. A thousand good moments, so many he no longer noticed them.
She’d given him that. And in return, he’d given her nothing. He had tried once—and failed. Maybe meeting her again was fate, giving him a second chance.
The light at the top of the Palais Garnier went out, casting the roof into darkness. He needed to make his way back to the Durands’. He needed to stand up.
He leaned his head back, the cold metal biting into his neck. The sky was overcast. In his imagination, Amelie stood before windows full of stars, but there were no stars to be seen. Just the lights of the city, reflected above him. Maybe he’d sleep here, with the clouds as a blanket.
He lifted his head. She was there, not in white, not dancing in the heavens, but right there, standing on a dirty sidewalk, her dress a serviceable gray, lines of fatigue on her face.
“Pretty,” he said, because she was.
“What are you doing here?”
A brain wasn’t very heavy on its own, but once one added in the skull and all the muscles—and the teeth, one couldn’t forget the teeth—not to mention two glasses of absinthe and at least a bottle and a half of champagne, the human head could become very heavy indeed. He leaned it back again, but then found he couldn’t see her. He compromised, resting the side of it against the bench. There.
“Are you—are you drunk?”
“Mmm,” he said.
“I see,” she said. Her eyes were so serious these days. Serious or wary. He didn’t like it. Now she was serious and a little unsure. And—frightened? “I’ll hail you a cab.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked, tugging on the sleeve of her coat. It was far too thin for a night this cold. He didn’t like that, either.
Just like that, her expression changed. She smiled—pleasant, sweet, impersonal. “Nothing,” she said. “Ben, you shouldn’t be out this late, in this condition. Someone will rob you.”
“You’re so good at that,” he said.
“Is it the ghost? Are you experiencing physical symptoms?”
He stood, swaying a bit, and took her wrist to feel for her pulse.
“No—Ben, I’m fine,” she said, pulling her hand away.
He stepped back to look at her. She wasn’t fine. He couldn’t say how he knew—the same way he knew she’d been pretending onstage that evening.
Wasn’t his business. Maybe his business if he was her friend? But she hadn’t said he was. He’d offered, and she’d looked like he’d handed her a live fish. But—
He sat down again. But he’d never stopped being in love with her. In his current state that was embarrassingly, emphatically clear. He hoped he’d forget it in the morning.
“You should go home,” he said.
She looked down at him, worry lines between her brows. “Are you going to get a cab? Or are you planning to sit there for the rest of the night?”
“Sit here,” he said, smiling up at her, because she was pretty, and because she was her. “Go home. It’s cold.”
“Mmm,” she said, looking in the direction of her apartment. After a moment, she sat down next to him, her hands in her pockets.
He frowned. The bench was freezing. “What are you doing? You’re not even wearing a scarf.” He pulled his own off and draped it over her shoulders, and then, on further consideration, struggled out of his coat as well.
“Ben, I don’t—”
“You can’t sit here if you don’t wear it.”
A little spurt of laughter bubbled from her lips. “I’m St. Amie,” she said. “There is no bench in Paris upon which I cannot sit.”
“Huh,” he said. “Just wait until you visit Ohio. I am a very important person in Ohio. There are chocolates in the right pocket.”
There—a real smile. “Well, if you’d just said that in the first place,” she said, pulling the coat around her shoulders and rooting around in the pockets until she produced the paper sack of chocolate caramels.
“Why are you here so late?”
Amelie took a moment to answer, chewing the sticky candy. “There was a change in the choreography,” she said. “I needed time alone to practice.”
“They changed it this late?”
She shrugged. “It happens.”
She popped another chocolate into her mouth, offered the bag to Ben. “What about you?”
“Victor wanted to drink absinthe.”
A fit of coughing overtook his companion. He patted her on the back.
“Ben,” she said, when she had recovered.
“Don’t drink absinthe. It’s not good for Americans.”
He smiled, staring up at the sky again. When he looked down, she was watching him. He cocked his head.
“You saw me dance tonight,” she said.
“It was the first time,” she said. “All these years, and it was the first time you saw me dance.”
“That’s not true,” he said. Her face was close to his. The lamp above them shone golden on her face, reflecting in her eyes. “I’ve never forgotten you dancing.”
She took a little breath in, so faint he shouldn’t have even noticed it, before that sweet, fraudulent smile reappeared. “I mean professionally,” she said, her voice suddenly quiet.
A few strands of hair fell across her face. He wanted to sweep them away. He didn’t.
They stayed like that for a few frozen moments. She recovered first.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said, standing. “It’s too cold for you.”
Amelie’s apartment was only five minutes away from the Palais Garnier. He imagined that was why she had chosen it. The streets were largely empty now, though occasionally they passed a bar or restaurant where the party had yet to end. A thin fog descended as they walked, turning the streetlamps into hazy golden moons.
She walked close enough to him he could feel the heat of her body. When they were younger, he might have offered his arm—now he kept it loose at his side.
Perfect. She’d been perfect tonight. She was an astonishing athlete—no one could defy physics, but she certainly did a good job of pretending she could. He’d held his breath with the rest of the audience at every impossible balance, marveled at her stamina, gasped at her leaps.
But this woman, the one next to him, made of muscle and bone and strength and feeling, had not been onstage that evening.
The woman onstage had been perfectly sweet, perfectly kind, and when the time had come, perfectly broken. Even her madness had been perfect—the understandable regret and horror of a young woman who had been led astray. She had died properly and politely, and when she rose from her grave, had only done so out of fidelity.
She had reminded him of André’s ballerinas. Amelie, the Amelie who loved to dance, for whom movement was emotion, was nowhere to be seen, and it felt like violence. Like someone had taken something beautiful and smothered it.
He stole a glance at her profile, the sight of her comforting him. He didn’t know what had happened to her—twelve years ago, she’d made it clear it was none of his business. But she was here now, next to him, and that was good.
“You said you can’t repair a brain,” she said suddenly.
“Yet,” he said.
“So you think it’s possible.”
“I think we’re extremely close,” he said. “It’s— Do you know much about the brain?”
She laughed. “No.”
“Different regions of the brain control different things,” he said.
“Like phrenology,” she said.
He winced. “Yes. But also, very importantly, no. And that’s an entire lecture I won’t give. The important thing is that until we know what controls what, we can’t operate on it. We could be taking out a tumor and accidentally remove someone’s ability to speak. Actually,” he said, feeling the pleasure of talking about something he loved with her, “that’s one of the things I hope to achieve while I’m here. There’s a Parisian anatomist, rather famously reclusive, who’s rumored to have developed the most accurate map of the brain ever made. I very desperately want that map.”
If only Bonnet would answer one of my letters.
They arrived at her apartment building. She turned to him, handing over his coat and scarf. “I hope you find your map,” she said.
“Now go home,” she said sternly. “No more sleeping on city benches in the middle of the night.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” he said. “I was stargazing. Amelie, have you thought about—”
“Don’t,” she said.
He nodded. It was the live fish expression again.
She must have seen something in his gaze, because she hesitated before turning away.
“It’s not you,” she said.
“You don’t need to explain yourself,” he said. “Go in. I’ll walk back to the main road and hail a cab.”
“I’m on a tightrope,” she said quietly. “And when I’m with you, I’m afraid I’ll suddenly jump off.”
He wanted to say something stupid like I’ll catch you. He didn’t.
“I understand,” he said, because she looked unbearably sad, and the least he could do was not make her worry about him. “Good night, Amelie.”
She paused a moment, and then walked into her apartment building. Benedict waited until he saw her vanish up the stairs before walking away, shrugging into a coat that now smelled of rosemary.
(C) Diana Biller, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2021. Shared with permission from the publisher.
Diana Biller is our featured guest on the Fresh Fiction Podcast this week! Diana joins Danielle and Gwen to chat about her new book, ghosts, and so much more.
The Fresh Fiction Podcast comes out every other week, featuring pop culture deep dives, TV/Movie/Book Recommendations, and all the tangents! Find us on the podcatcher of your choice or send us an email at email@example.com.
Diana Biller’s The Brightest Star in Paris is a novel about first loves…and second chances.
Amelie St. James, prima ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet and sweetheart of Paris, is a fraud. Seven years ago, in the devastating aftermath of the Siege of Paris, she made a decision to protect her sister: she became the bland, sweet, pious “St. Amie” the ballet needed to restore its scandalous reputation. But when her first love reappears and the ghosts of her past come back to haunt her, all her hard-fought safety is threatened.
Dr. Benedict Moore has never forgotten the girl who helped him embrace life again after he almost lost his. Now, years later, he’s back in Paris. His goals are to recruit promising new scientists, and maybe to see Amelie again. When he discovers she’s in trouble, he’s desperate to help her—after all, he owes her.
When she finally agrees to let him help, they disguise their time together with a fake courtship. But reigniting old feelings is dangerous, especially when their lives are an ocean apart. Will they be able to make it out with their hearts intact?
About Diana Biller
Diana Biller lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their very good dog. She loves rainy mornings and sunny afternoons, and curling up with a good book in any weather. Before becoming a full-time writer, she went to law school and spent her clerkships writing romance novels in the law library.